On 18th October, the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 104:1-10, Hebrews 5:1-10, Mark 10:35-45.
If you were to ask young people what they want in life, many might look to a famous actor or singer and long to be like them. They see the adulation of the crowds; flashes as hundreds of photos are taken at film premieres and concerts; the fancy cars, jewellery and designer clothes that are the trappings of wealth. It’s understandable that a person might long for that sort of life. Success looks like that, if we are to believe the media.
Sadly that external success does not always lead to contentment. The same media that reports on the great achievements of superstars also often have the sad duty of reporting on the untimely death of those same people. They have all that they longed for but it’s not enough, or it’s too much of the wrong thing. Drugs, alcohol or suicide seem the only solutions to a dream turned sour. We’re actually not always very good at finding true success in life.
People have not changed much over thousands of years. We have more technology, better medicine, greater opportunities, but human nature is essentially unchanged. James and John were probably fairly young and idealistic, not dissimilar to young people today. The life of fishermen was hard and dangerous, certainly not glamorous. Had the two of them been asked what they wanted in life, they too might have seen examples of contemporary ‘superstars’ they would like to copy. There were rich people around of course. We considered the rich young man last week. They might have liked to have his lifestyle. If James and John had wanted a superstar with a religious aspect, they could have considered the high priests. The high priests of the day were rich and influential. They dressed in fancy clothes and commanded the respect of those around them.
Jesus seemed to be sweeping away the old way of being Jewish and bringing in the new. The Messiah that people had been waiting for had finally arrived (though not all recognised him). The kingdom of God was at hand. It’s not too difficult to understand that the disciples, especially those in Jesus’ inner circle of three, might dream of what was to come as a result. It was an exciting time, full of potential. Although Jesus had been trying to teach the disciples just what messiahship and the kingdom really looked like, it’s apparent that they struggled to understand. They surely could not help being influenced by the views of those around them. The idea at the time was more focused on a replacement for King David. Israel would be free of Roman dominion, they would have a wonderful king and life would be peaceful and prosperous as in David’s time. Any king in those circumstances would need trusted helpers around him. James and John obviously thought they had the necessary qualities. They were looking forward to a glorious future.
In response, Jesus had to bring them down to earth with a bump. Although such positions of right hand and left hand man to the Messiah existed, God was the one who had decided who would fill them. It was not up to Jesus to decide. What Jesus could offer was a touch of reality. The call of discipleship was not to earthly success but to suffering and servanthood. The disciple’s role was not to strive for position in the kingdom of God but to emulate our Lord as faithfully as possible. The cup of suffering that Jesus begged to have removed from him in the Garden of Gethsemane is likely to be offered to his disciples too in some form.
The letter to the Hebrews makes it plain that Jesus, the great high priest, did not try to gain his position presumptuously. Aaron, and every high priest after him, was called to his position by God. They could not seek the position but only await God’s call to it. Only God knew the person with the right character, who could understand the weaknesses of the people and act as an empathic conduit between them and God.
Jesus was also appointed to his position as a result of God’s call. As he was fully human, he understands the human condition with all its complexities and contradictions. Being without sin, he was uniquely qualified to offer himself as a full and final sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. Although the high priests of Jesus’ day seemed to have privilege and position, the outcome of Jesus being high priest was that he was treated as a common criminal. The only time Jesus wore a fancy robe was as he was mocked before his crucifixion. The highest position he achieved was that of being lifted up naked on a cross for all to despise. There is no doubt that Jesus lived the life of a suffering servant. He was not offering his disciples something he didn’t experience.
Despite following Jesus, the Church and individuals who make it up, can easily become diverted by measuring success in worldly terms. Pastors have multi-site churches with thousands of members; they have chance to talk to the rich and powerful of the world, and they are admired. Yet there are others who serve in run down areas, on neglected housing estates where poverty and violence is the order of the day. Few will ever know their names but they are being true to their calling from God. They are bringing hope and healing to the least and the lost. Of course, if God needs someone in a position of influence with the powerful of this world, they too can serve him faithfully as long as they don’t lose sight of their calling. Jesus simply reminded James and John that there are no guarantees of worldly success and status in the Christian life.
I’m sure none of us here is immune to the risk of taking our eyes off Jesus’ example and following a more worldly model. As part of our response to this risk, every New Year when we meet together for worship here in the Cathedral, we use the Methodist Covenant Prayer which is a very helpful reminder of who has called us and what that calling entails:
I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you or laid aside for you,
exalted for you or brought low for you.
Let me be full, let me be empty,
let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.